Taking the Children Home
At the age of eight Anna, a disturbed and angry child, was abandoned by her mother at the local authority shelter. It was the final straw in a long line of damaging experiences that led to the intervention of the charity EveryChild in both the mother and child’s lives.
Anna had been living with her mother Natalya in one room of a three bedroom apartment in Ekaterinburg when their lives begand to unravel. First Anna’s father deserted the family, and when the money began to run out, their landlord attempted to evict them. A second marriage and Natalya’s subsequent pregnancy only served to make family life more difficult for the already deeply disturbed and confused little girl. Natalya was unable to cope with her daughter’s increasingly erratic behaviour and, at the end of her tether, placed her in the care of local authorities. This sad story was brought to the attention of EveryChild, who in conjunction with the district’s Centre for Social Assistance, brought Anna back home to her mother. The family was given practical help in the form of financial support, clothing and food. Anna was counseled and supported by the staff of EveryChild. Within a short time, social workers dealing with the case were astounded by the change in Anna, who was playing happily at home with her mother and new little brother. Stable family life proved elusive for Natalya and trouble returned with a vengeance as her second husband walked out on her and two small children leaving them in a squalid room with debts mounting and seemingly no way out. But this time, with the support of social workers, Natalya survived and rode out the money crisis by finding a job as a school custodian and managing to make improvements to their one small room. Due to the intervention of the lawyer at the Center for Social Assistance, the family finally gained rightful ownership of their room and with it a chance for stability and security. Anna’s disturbed and unhappy childhood seems a million miles away as she settles into life at secondary school, achieving such good marks that one day she hopes to become a teacher. The future seems bright and, perhaps more importantly for this optimistic little family, very stable.
Anna’s story highlights the fundamental principles that EveryChild, a British-based international children’s charity, is trying to spread in Russia. It is a simple idea, underlined a million times over by the harrowing stories of the “graduates” of children’s institutions whose childhood and often whole life is overshadowed by the damage they suffered in these institutions. The simple idea is that family-based care is far superior to anything the State has to offer. First and most importantly for the child, is to feel loved and cherished at this early stage of life. Children, innocent victims of circumstances beyond their control or comprehension, will always suffer emotionally, mentally, educationally and even physically, from institutional life. The scars they bear from institutional care can carry into adulthood. Grim statistics of adults who have been institutionalized in childhood show how society can benefit from moving away from institutional care of children. Prisons are filled with criminals whose unhappy childhoods in institutions offered them no other choice in life.
On a practical level, supporting families to help them to keep their children at home is significantly cheaper than the cost of funding institutional care. When the biological parents cannot provide a safe and secure home for a child, relations such as aunts, uncles or grandparents sometimes can. When even this is not possible, foster-parenting is increasingly being explored as a viable and preferable option to institutions. The key message of EveryChild is that only family-based care can give the child the individual attention and secure attachment to a caring adult he or she needs to thrive, grow and develop fully.
This message is especially relevant and increasingly needed in Russia today. The harsh reality of statistics show what an important issue and long term problem EveryChild is up against; 716,000 children are currently institutionalized in Russia. EveryChild’s research shows that only 1-2% of children in so called “orphanages” in Russia actually have no parents. These children have been institutionalized because their parents have been forced to give them up, unable to bring up their own child due to economic or social pressures. Anna’s story illustrates how easily circumstances can lead to this drastic measure.
EveryChild is attempting to show how if these families are supported through the crisis, whether it be debt, unemployment, homelessness or sim- ply the breakdown of the family unit through divorce or bereavement, they can ride out the storm together and the children will not end up parentless and adrift in the dark world of children’s homes. It makes for a happier ending all around if the family emerges from the crisis intact.
EveryChild is working at every level to speed up social reforms. At the grassroots level they identify and help families in danger of losing their children by training social workers who can then in turn support the families through whatever crisis they are facing. It supports fostering schemes in Ekaterinburg and St. Petersburg which recruit, prepare and train volunteers to offer the individual care every child needs to feel secure and develop to his or her full potential.
At the other end of the scale, EveryChild is working at the governmental level, lobbying to place children already in orphanages with foster families. It is preferable that the child is reunited with his or her natural parents. If this is impossible then relatives or foster families can provide a brighter future than an impersonal government institution, where a child with individual emotional needs becomes a mere number. An institutionalized child has become a byword for a damaged child.
In 2005, EveryChild shot a documentary film in a Russian baby home over the period of a year. “The Way Home” (Äîðîãà äîìîé) charts the stories of four young children who had been placed in a baby home for different reasons. Three of them had at least one parent living locally. The film is hard hitting and emotive. The mothers’ voices feature strongly, telling of the chain of events that forced them to abandon their babies, and then why and how they reconsidered their difficult decision and eventually brought the children home, all except for one little girl who was eventually adopted.
This film was created as a sequel to a British film called John. Shot in the 1970’s the film documented a child’s distress and developmental backsliding when he was placed in a governmental institution for a short time during the period of the birth of a sibling. John was a key voice in the mounting research that showed how much children are damaged by institutional life. It helped to change attitudes towards governmental care in Britain. Today the basis of government childcare is far removed from the 70’s. Family-based care has long been seen as the best option for parentless children and those adrift. Now EveryChild is hoping that “The Way Home”, through the truth of its message, showing the damaging consequences of children without a significant relationship with a parent figure, can similarly help to give Russian institutionalized children a brighter future. John, the little boy of the British film who is now middle aged, can hand the baton of responsibility to Ivan or Vanya in the Russian film.
The film is just one of many ways EveryChild is working to change society’s attitude and bring this long term problem to the forefront of public consciousness. On June 1, International Day of the Child, EveryChild launched their text messaging campaign supported by Plastic Media, one of Russia’s leading content and service provider companies. It is the first time a children’s charity in Russia has used mobile phone technology to spread their message over the vast country. By simply texting “7ÿ” or “7ya” or “family” to the numbers 7090 or 7250, you can contribute to the process of reuniting children from Russian orphanages and homes with their parents and help children from vulnerable groups of the population remain with their families. You could make a donation in return for funny pictures featuring children and a ringtone of happy baby laughter. EveryChild can use part of the cost of each SMS message to support these vulnerable children and give them the chance of a happier future. EveryChild will follow up your support, texting out information about their activities, programs and how the donations have been spent. The message, helped on its way by interviews on Russian radio stations and press releases in English and Russian, is spreading fast. The message that EveryChild is spreading in Russia is fundamental and true, and one that society has ignored for too long and at great cost.
The message is that every child deserves a childhood.
To find out more and get involved in EveryChild’s activities contact: Kit Lawry, Moscow Coordinator (International) EveryChild Russia Tel: 8 903 592 8852 firstname.lastname@example.org Olga Mironova, Moscow Coordinator (Russian) EveryChild Russia Tel: 8 915 339 3392 email@example.com Web: www.everychild.org.uk
The film “The Way Home” will be shown at the British Embassy in Moscow in October 2006